The Life & Work of Sallie McFague
Reflections read at Sallie McFague’s memorial service.
I was given a copy of Sallie McFague’s book “Models of God” as a gift when I left home for theological school in California. There Sallie’s work, alongside that of her contemporaries, had an established place in the curriculum, and in that way I became familiar with her name and her work. By this time, Sallie had published four of what would be 10 books; she was in the latter years of her 30-year teaching tenure at Vanderbilt Divinity School where she had also served as one of the first women academic deans of an American theological school.
As it turns out, Sallie wasn’t simply one among many theologians of her day; she was and will be remembered to be one among a very few preeminent theologians, and yet fewer women theologians, of the late 20th century, one who has changed and challenged the way we think and speak about God, and more importantly, the way we understand ourselves and our place in the scheme of things (as she so plainly put it).
She was and will be remembered to be one among a very few preeminent theologians […] who has changed and challenged the way we think and speak about God, and more importantly, the way we understand ourselves and our place in the scheme of things.
I was at home with two children under five when over 15 years ago Sallie’s voice recorded on the answering machine in my kitchen informed me that she was seeking a Teaching Assistant for the courses she was offering at VST as their Distinguished Scholar in Residence, a position she served faithfully for exactly 20 years, thereby fulfilling her dream not to live a day longer than she was able to go to school which she did 81 Septembers in a row. Seated in her office, surrounded by what I would later learn were among her favourite things: the colour blue, a collection of turtles and a poster of the Rocky Mountains, my first task, to test my suitability, was to grade a stack of papers. We both set to work and then switched stacks in order to read one another’s comments: her long-hand in the fine tip black felt pen of the master and mine in the tentative pencil of apprenticeship; and so it remained over the years that followed. Though our roles changed, she graciously remained my mentor and yet more graciously became a friend.
Ours was not a friendship based on intersecting life stories or experiences in common, but the unlikeliness of it was the tremendous gift of it. Spared the trivialities that sometimes link lives together, things about which she had no interest anyway, meant I had the opportunity to share with her only the few things we did have in common which turned out to be deeply precious things to us both: love of this world, heartbreak at its precariousness, faith nonetheless in reality’s trustworthiness and graciousness, and a desire to speak of all this well. Friendship, as Sallie herself wrote about both early and late in her scholarship, is not merited; it is a bridge across what is otherwise not touching. This is what makes friendship both a reflection of the divine life and a metaphor for it. We understand a little more about God by having unlikely and unmerited friendships because love does not seek itself; it seeks others and offers itself to them. Sallie taught that and she lived it.
Sallie was a scholar and theologian, a teacher, and a Christian. These were, for her, all of a piece, and her posture toward all of them was disciplined and tireless.
She was more than this, of course; the years in which I knew her were also shaped by her relationships as partner to Janet (Cawley), mother to John and Elizabeth (TeSelle), and grandmother to Natalie and Evelyn. Over the years, we spoke together of all these aspects of her life and more, but more than what was expressed, I learned of and from Sallie through my proximity to her, sharing a faculty table, an office corridor, a commute, and one big adventure to India together.
It was this latter experience, when I accompanied Sallie to Dharmsala where she had been invited by His Holiness the Dalai Lama to address the Mind and Life Conference on Ecology, Ethics, and Interdependence in 2011, when we grew closest and when I met her family in earnest. Together with them, we were her cheerleaders – willing her at nearly 80 years of age, with a back in ill repair, to weather the journey halfway around the globe, up into the Himalayan foothills, and daily over steep stone pathways to be the first Christian theologian to address this august audience. Each day I reported in by email to Elizabeth, John and Janet who were counting on me to bring her safely back. Beyond the privilege and intimacy of that shared experience for me was the opportunity to witness Sallie overcome fear and discomfort in order to communicate something important. Her presentation was a masterful précis of her life’s work and resulted in her final book on the
practice of restraint (Blessed Are the Consumers). There was great rejoicing when we returned in one piece, most especially because she had so succeeded in her task of speaking a much needed and much appreciated word among climate scientists and ethicists about the role of religions in contributing both to the problem and the potential solution to the economic and ecological crisis.
She called it immanent transcendence, a double vision: the ability to see in the world both what it is and who made it: to meet God here and to love God here.
A professional academic, Sallie was a consummate contributor to the project of theological education. She spoke only in the collective “we”, including herself in the shared work and aims of the school and including others in her own. This collaborative, supportive, inclusive and modest posture, typified not only the feminist she was but the person she was. Sallie modelled excellence in everything she did for, and on behalf of, the school and the wider academic community. In the academy, as in all things, Sallie was careful, discerning and deliberate, insisting that it is wise to know what one can do and to learn to do it well. She demanded this of herself and she expected it of others. To a very large and very private degree, above all else, she expected this of her own Christian practice.
We are indebted to Sallie for courageous and painstaking scholarship. Every one of her books was written via countless notepads, distilled on index cards, arranged into chapters, drafted in longhand, typed, revised, proofed and edited. There is extraordinary clarity in her writing not because she was endowed with this but because she worked at it. Nor was she endowed with knowledge of global capitalism, nuclear arsenal, evolutionary biology, climate science, or post-modern philosophy. She learned it. All this she did for us, her readers. Believing that theology matters – that it shapes thought and action, that it shapes lives and worldviews – she offered it to us in aid not of scholarship but of day to day discipleship, offered it so we might catch a glimpse of how to live here and now in the way of the disruptive vision of Jesus’ kenotic version of what it is to be human on the earth and in God.
Theology must be responsive to and liveable in our time, she insisted. I think of her work as a kind of slow, thick activism, an infinitely more rigorous and painstaking art than some other forms of activism: the work of shaping the ideas that shape the lives that shape the world. The ideas she was compelled to shape were ideas about God and the world, no less. So she offered us the best of what she had, fresh images of the God–world relationship to fund a theology which inspires Christians to love and care for the world – a world which as our meeting place with God, can be conceived of as a living body of which humans are a small part. She offered us this radical image consistently in her work: what if just as we have both a life and a body, we imagined that God has both a life and a body? What if loving God included caring for the world the way that loving a person includes caring for their physical needs? Imagine, she suggested, the world as God’s body. All her work leads there: to a love of God manifest in love of what is here (immanently) rather than what is not; this not because what is not here (God’s transcendence) doesn’t exist but because what is not here can be intimated, reached, experienced through what is here. She called it immanent transcendence, a double vision: the ability to see in the world both what it is and who made it, to meet God here and to love God here.
Her work consistently offers us in her steady cupped hands both God and the world and says, “here’s how we might conceive of these and hold them together; what do you think?” Even with so much at stake, her work was never defensive or impatient. On the contrary, she insisted that as long as there is only ONE way to speak about God, it would inevitably be wrong. No one has seen God, she reminds us in everything she wrote, so we must be humble, tentative, experimental, open and collaborative in our attempts to describe what cannot be fully known.
As a scholar, and also a teacher. Lectures typed and rehearsed, names of the students memorized, Sallie came to class in a blazer because the work that happened there was important. She taught her students to become conscious, self-aware, and responsible theologians the way one might teach medicine or art – theology is something to do; not something to know. How will you do it, she asked of her students. What will you say about God’s relationship to the world that will help others live well on the earth for the flourishing of all life on the planet? Long after she retired from formal teaching at VST, she continued to probe this question for herself and explore it with others – former colleagues, doctoral students, clergy, learned lay people and most recently her granddaughter with whom she discussed post-modern philosophy. The question was never exhausted for her because it was not an intellectual but a practical one; what we believe about God and what we do about it belong together. The question of how to do what needs to be done genuinely haunted her but in pursuit of it she found good company with those about whom she wrote; saints and poets were suitable companions for Sallie – those who do the impractical and those who find words for the unsayable – both testimony to the ethical and sacramental convergence in her thought and practice, she looked to these living parables of life in God.
I believe that holding this God/world reality in her strong hands and in her soft heart and in her restless head was not without cost. I often wondered as Sallie’s spine gave out and body failed whether this in some way was the impact on her small frame of the attention she consented to pay to the way things are, the cost of sustaining her attention to the world in all its arresting beauty and its unnecessary peril. I think of the days and weeks and months and years we drove together along her beloved Jericho beach on the way to the school, in an unspoken but habitual pact of both silently praising the author of the gulls and gusting sea, the greening trees and snow-capped peaks while simultaneously speaking haltingly of some unthinkable terror just transpired, driving as we did through news of wars begun, refugees drowned, climate talks failed, and elections botched. For Sallie, the added insult to these injuries was the dangerous lie that God resides elsewhere. No wonder Janet insisted on retreats to Maui from which Sallie nearly always returned restored by beauty. Her anguish for the bent world which in turn perhaps left its mark on her bent body, never found its way onto the page or into the classroom. She bore it largely alone and with those closest to her. She gave us instead only her very best measured and constructive thoughts, ways to live the doxology she herself strove to live – “giving glory to God by loving the world and everything in it” (Life Abundant) – living in praise of the divine reality in which all things find and are loved into life – life in, with, from and for God, the source, sustainer and end of all that is.
In the words of one of her best loved poets, I believe that today – from her cupped hands to ours – she would have us remember, in order that we too might have the courage to face the world as it is and meet God here, that we are not alone, that eternally, in Gerald Manley Hopkins’ words, “the Holy Ghost over the bent world broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.” (God’s Grandeur, 1877)
In memory of Sallie McFague, May 25, 1933 – November 15, 2019.
Janet Gear is Assistant Professor of Public and Pastoral Leadership and Director of United Church Formation at VST since 2006. She was a close friend and colleague of Dr. Sallie McFague’s and teaches McFague’s work in both academic and church settings. Currently Janet is on sabbatical-leave as the United Church of Canada’s McGeachy Senior Scholar writing for congregations about theological diversity.